HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1481-5

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

4.20 p.m.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I do not intend to take up more than a very few minutes of the Committee's time on a point which, I am advised, is appropriately taken at this stage, although I recognise that it is unusual to speak on the Committee stage of this Bill. I will attempt to make my point as briefly as possible.

It concerns the use of the Appropriation Act for giving legislative sanction to expenditure referred to in the Supplementary Estimate for the loans to ship owners, to which reference was made earlier today. I recognise that it would be out of order to discuss in any shape or form the merits of the proposals in the Government's mind.

What I am concerned with is the use of the Appropriation Act for this purpose when it is well known that the Public Accounts Committee has frowned in no uncertain terms on the use of this Act in substitution for a proper Bill dealing with the subject in question. We were told on 29th May, when the Minister of Transport referred to this

matter, that legislation would be required. Nevertheless, this Bill is being used, although legislation giving legislative sanction is promised later in the year.

When this matter has been raised with the Treasury on previous occasions, the justification for using this Act in this way advanced by it has been one of urgency. It is difficult to understand why there should be this urgency when the Supplementary Estimate to which I have referred states: It is not expected that any expenditure will be incurred in the current financial year. I should, therefore, like to know why the Appropriation Act is being used for this purpose if, in fact, no expenditure in the current year is expected.

The other point that I wish to make is this. We are told that there will be a Bill. When that Bill is debated it will, no doubt, be known that the authorisation by Parliament for the expenditure referred to in the Bill will already have been given by the passing of the Measure with which we are concerned today. It seems to me highly undesirable, to say the least of it, that the expenditure should be authorised in advance of a discussion on the details of how that expenditure shall be applied.

I therefore hope that when the Bill comes along the protest that I have made will make it clear that the discussion should be in no way inhibited or views prejudiced by the fact that authority has been given at this stage for the expenditure referred to in the Supplementary Estimate.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Anthony Barber)

The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) has raised this point is yet another instance of the vigilance of the Estimates Committee. It is useful that I should have the opportunity of explaining the reason for this somewhat exceptional procedure, although I hasten to add that it is by no means unique.

May I remind hon. Members briefly of the sequence of events. On 29th May, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport announced to the House at some length the Government's proposal, to which reference was made at the end of Question Time today, to make loans to United Kingdom ship owners in certain circumstances. My right hon. Friend's statement was welcomed on both sides of the House. It has been recognised throughout, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend, that legislation should be introduced to cover this new service, but the Government were confronted with this very real difficulty. The state of the legislative programme was such that there was no possibility of the necessary legislation being introduced during this Session. It may be argued on the ground of propriety—I believe misguidedly—that we should, therefore, have delayed the introduction of this scheme until next Session.

While, like my hon. Friend, I must avoid arguing the merits of the policy announced by my right hon. Friend, I think that, since my hon. Friend referred to the matter of urgency, I should remind hon. Members that our shipbuilders have been faced with a trough in demand, if I may put it in that way, which has brought their order books very low. Therefore, once it had been decided by the Government that the new scheme should be introduced, it seemed to us highly desirable that it should be put into effect at the earliest possible opportunity. Because there was no possibility of legislation this Session, the only way that we could proceed was to rest the authority for the new service on the Appropriation Act, as we have done.

When considering whether this is a proper way of proceeding, I think that it is highly relevant to bear in mind that, while we want to be able to incur commitments in order to get the scheme going—and it is because we want to incur commitments that we need some authority for the Minister of Transport to pro- ceed—we do not expect that any loans will actually be made during the current financial year. If we had not taken the step which we have taken by presenting an Estimate to the Committee of Supply, which was subsequently reported to the House, and also by dealing with this matter in the Appropriation Act, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport would not have had the necessary authority to enter into the commitments which are essential if we are to get the scheme going.

Furthermore, those hon. Members who have examined the Estimate in question will observe that we went to considerable lengths to make the position crystal clear by setting out the salient factors which were known at that time. First, reference was made to the original announcement of 29th May to which my hon. Friend referred; secondly, it is stated that it is not expected that any expenditure will be incurred during the present financial year; thirdly the purpose of the token provision—for it is only a token provision—is stated to be to secure parliamentary authority for the service, that is, to enable us to start entering into commitments; and, fourthly, in a footnote to the Estimate a specific undertaken is given that legislation will be introduced.

I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that, apart from the question of propriety, we need not have done more to inform the House of the true position at the time that the Estimate was presented. With regard to the propriety of the matter, I should remind the Committee that an Estimate has been taken in the past in almost exactly parallel circumstances.

The matter therefore boils down to this. First, the procedure which we have employed on this occasion, although unusual, is by no means unique. Secondly, the only alternatives which were open to us were either to proceed as we have done or to defer for several months the introduction of this very real benefit to British shipyards. I hope that hon. Members will take the view that in these exceptional circumstances we did the right thing. I give this assurance to hon. Members generally and to my hon. Friend in particular. We regard this procedure as exceptional and we believe that it should be employed only very rarely.

With that explanation and that assurance, I hope that the Committee will be content that we have acted reasonably and with propriety.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules A, B and C agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.